Fake social media profiles have been spreading propaganda messages about Cop28 and attacking criticism of its host, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in what experts called an “organised” campaign.
Purporting to be genuine people based in the UAE, scores of individual Twitter accounts publish similar positive content and defend the UAE in replies to posts by campaigners or journalists.
At least a hundred profiles engaged in such behaviour have been identified by Marc Owen Jones, a digital disinformation expert at the Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar.
Twitter suspended a handful of those accounts after Jones publicly exposed them last week. But many others remain active having now transitioned to different personas overnight.
Climate Home News has independently analysed the activities of some of the most active profiles. They were all created in February 2022, using fake profile pictures and unlikely biographies, and display a suspicious pattern of activities.
When taken together, they appear to be engaged in an orchestrated attempt to promote the UAE.
“This is definitely organised”, Marc Owen Jones told Climate Home News. ” The accounts are part of a coordinated network, using the same modus operandi.”
He says the accounts appear to carry out a strategic communication campaign promoting the Cop28, among other UAE policy matters.
“A lot of their efforts go towards damage limitation. Whenever there is negative content about Cop28, they swing into action to try and balance the narrative, muddy the waters,” he added.
Proving who is behind these accounts is difficult and neither Jones or Climate Home News has evidence the Cop28 team or any UAE government agency is running them.
A Cop28 UAE spokesperson told Climate Home News that such engagement is “unacceptable” and goes against their commitment to authenticity and transparency.
“The Cop28 team is already aware of fake accounts and bots coordinating in manipulation on the platform and violating Twitter’s manipulation and spam policy,” they added. “We have written to Twitter directly requesting assistance to take immediate action to stop this activity and to remove all fake accounts and bots.”
But Marc Owen Jones believes that, given the scale and content type, the “most likely explanation” is that this operation is run by a PR firm working for an entity in the UAE.
The tweets are generally responses or quote-tweets to tweets by the UAE government. But some are exactly the same as the UAE government’s tweets.
Jones said whoever was running these accounts were either copying the government’s language or “the same social media company manages the accounts of government officials and the fake accounts.”
One example is ‘Viyan Mahmud’. Like most of the accounts, it was created in February 2022.
“Mahmud” purported to be a human rights advocate in the UAE. As its profile picture, it displayed a computer-generated image with the line ‘this person does not exist” still emblazoned on top.
Initially its feed alternated propaganda messages about the UAE with pictures of luxury handbags and collectible sneakers.
Amplifying the government message
But on March 27th ‘Viyan Mahmud’ wrote: “We welcome the activation of the Transitional Committee on the #LossAndDamage Fund and funding arrangements…”. The same tweet and the same picture had been posted 30 minutes earlier by the official Cop28 account.
The pattern repeated itself at the beginning of May when the UAE’s Cop28 team unveiled its agenda at the Petersberg Climate Summit. Following a bilateral meeting with world leaders, the official account of UAE’s Climate Minister Mariam Almheiri published the following tweet:
During the Global Response to Climate Impacts session, on the sidelines of #PetersbergClimateDialogue I discussed the significance of the Global Goal on Adaptation outcome at #COP28 & how it can support national policy measures to enhance adaptive capacity & reduce vulnerability. pic.twitter.com/9SchVA3wMi
— Mariam Almheiri | مريم المهيري (@mariammalmheiri) May 3, 2023
Afterward, ‘Viyan Mahmud’ posted the same picture of Almheiri and US Special Envoy John Kerry saying “shared my views on the crucial role of Global Goal on Adaptation at COP28…”. The message is remarkably similar to Almheiri’s and, like that one, it appears to be conveying the Climate Minister’s personal thoughts.
After being exposed by Dr. Jones, the ‘Viyan Mahmud’ account has undergone a complete makeover.
It is now called ‘Amina Mahi’ and claims to be a tech enthusiast. The profile picture has been changed to a portrait photo of the Indian TikToker Arishfa Khan. It continues to share professionally-crafted pro-UAE content.
Climate Home News has seen several more examples of fake Twitter profiles acting in unison to rebut criticism.
Below the post of a Financial Times article headlined ‘Is Cop28 destined to be a flop?’, a user then named ‘Hannah Yousef’ urged others to give the UAE a chance and “work together towards a sustainable future”.
When someone branded her comment as “attempted greenwashing”, the fake profile shot back: “Excuse me!!! Instead of attacking the country’s host, fostering cooperation and giving leaders like Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber a chance to make a positive impact is crucial…”, she wrote.
‘Hannah Yousef’ claimed to be a humanitarian aid advocate from Syria based in the UAE. After being exposed by Marc Owen Jones, the profile has now turned into ‘Avery Cohen’.
The Cop28 hosts have repeatedly come under criticism from climate campaigners since the start of the year.
First, questions were raised over the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber, an oil executive, as the climate summit’s head. The invitation to Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad brought another outpouring of condemnation from human rights groups and western governments.
Finally, the UAE’s promotion of phasing out “fossil fuel emissions” rather than fossil fuels was labelled an attempt to use the promise of carbon capture and storage technology to prolong the country’s oil exports.
The Cop28 hosts have been previously accused of trying to “control the narrative” online. Last week the Guardian said members of the Cop28 president’s team edited Wikipedia pages that highlighted Sultan Al Jaber’s role as an oil executive.
Note: The headline was amended after publication on 6th June 2023.